NEWS - NH: Q&A with: Portuguese wine 'ambassador' Jayme Simoes
Q&A with: Portuguese wine ‘ambassador’ Jayme Simoes
By Cindy Kibbe
Friday, April 10, 2009
(Photo by Cindy Kibbe)
‘What we’re trying to do is to share a sense of excitement and story’ about Portuguese wines, says Jayme Simoes, owner of Concord PR firm Louis Karno & Company Communications.
Ten years ago, Jayme Simoes started the public relations firm Louis Karno & Company Communications with his wife Laura in Concord. Well diversified in its clientele, Louis Karno has weathered several economic storms – and, so far, the current one. “We’ve seen a few accounts go, but we’ve also seen new accounts come and replace them,” said Simoes.
One of those newer accounts encompasses an entire country – the nation of Portugal.
With Laura having moved on to work for the office of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Simoes sat down with NHBR to tell us how his own Portuguese heritage and childhood summers spent among the country’s terraced hillsides absorbing the millennia-old culture paved the way for a lucrative relationship with the Portuguese wine industry.
Q. So how does a small PR firm from Concord, N.H., get to promote to the U.S. and the world one of the hottest new wine markets?
A. One simple answer is that I speak Portuguese. A lot of the work we do is translating. A lot of the information coming to us from Portuguese clients is in Portuguese. If you don’t speak the language, it’s very difficult to take that information and do something useful with it. That’s a big advantage.
The second thing is knowing the country. I grew up in the U.S., but I would spend every summer in Portugal traveling with my family. So I know Portugal north to south, east to west. Understanding the culture, the literature, the history, the architecture, the cuisine — all those things are very important.
Our trip on this path began about six years ago. The Azorean flag-carrying airline hired us, the Azores Express. (The Azores is an autonomous region of Portugal; it’s a group of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic.) They hired us to help promote it as a destination. Their challenge was that they flew to Boston, where there are a lot of people of Azorean descent living in Massachusetts and in Rhode Island. That market was graying, however. There was less demand from the ethnic market, and they wanted to fill the planes. At the time, they were only getting about 6,000 to 7,000 Americans visiting when we started. Now, we’ve almost tripled that.
Then a few years later, we got hired by the Portuguese government, the Portuguese Trade and Tourism Office, to represent the country nationally based on the work we had done for the Azores. That’s been three years now, and we’ve gone from about 150,000 Americans a year [visiting Portugal] to 250,000 in just three years.
Then along came the wines. ViniPortugal is a relatively newly established wine board put together by some of Portugal’s largest wine companies with some help from the government.
The idea is to increase sales and demand for Portuguese wine, not just in the U.S., but around the world.
Q. What is the U.S. market for Portuguese wines?
A. Currently, it’s a very small percent. So we’ve got our challenges.
I think our first challenge is that many Americans don’t recognize that Portugal is a major wine-producing country. Portugal’s been making wines for 3,000 or 4,000 years. So it’s not like it’s something that started a couple of generations ago.
Challenge number two is the wines themselves. They’re wonderful, but they don’t use French grapes. Most Americans know wines by French grapes. In Portugal, they grow Portuguese grapes. There are something like 200 different varieties. Toriga Nacional, Baga, Alverinho, Loureiro — these are not grapes most Americans know. So when you buy a Portuguese wine, you’re not going to easily be drawn in the by grape.
Then there’s the regions. We have probably 20-plus wine-producing regions, maybe 10 DOC [Denominação de Origem Controlada, or regions where wine must conform to standards of quality] regions that are not commonly known. Most Americans know Port and they know Madeira to some extent, but those aren’t table wines.
So these are our challenges.
But in the last three years, Portuguese red wine sales have increased 125 percent, and overall wine sales are up 40 percent. Those are big numbers. It’s still small [compared to the overall U.S. wine market], but people are beginning to vote with their pocketbooks.
What we have in our favor as we go forward is that we’re in a bit of pickle in terms of the economy, but wine sales aren’t down that much — only about 2 percent or 3 percent over the last quarter as opposed to beer sales, which have dropped 15 percent.
What’s changed is the average price of the bottle of wine, from somewhere over $10 to somewhere under $10. People are looking for a better value in wine, so that opens people’s minds to trying new wines.
Portugal doesn’t have resources that the Australians did a few years ago. They made a full-court press in the U.S. with excellent, excellent wines; they carved a huge piece of the market out. Then came New Zealand, and now South Africa, Chile and Argentina. All with really good wines.
Q. The wine industry in the U.S. is big business. Is there a similar effort in Portugal for their native wines?
A. Yes. The difference between Portugal and those other countries is that, traditionally, it didn’t export its finest wines. There’s a very strong internal market in Portugal for Portuguese wine. Portugal’s finest wines tended to stay in Portugal.
That’s changing. Portugal is now exporting some of its finest wines, not just to Europe, but to the U.S.
What also has changed is the technology. In 1986, Portugal entered the European Union. Now the EU has some pretty deep pockets and put a lot of money into the Portuguese wine industry. They basically took an industry that was historic, in both good ways and bad, and gave them resources to upgrade their facilities. So stainless steel replaced old stone vats and oak casks.
They were sort of emulating what Australia did, which has set the standard for worldwide production, and California before that. So now Portuguese wines are produced in the same way the great wines of California and Australia are, with the latest technology, which creates a level of quality which Portuguese wines have never had.
Portuguese wines have probably become the fastest up-and-coming wines in Europe because of the big amount of money going to the Portuguese wine industry.
Q. So has that quality gotten better or just more standardized?
A. It’s jumped huge percentages year over year and just keeps getting better.
Other changes happened as well. Before entering the EU, most wines came from cooperatives. They had farmers who would sell grapes to the local cooperative, and were often paid by weight and not by quality. That’s been turned around. Now the quality is more important than the amount of grapes.
Also, new wineries opened across the country. Families that had been selling their wines to the cooperatives started selling them themselves. Larger wine companies spread out regionally. Some new players came to the scene. So instead of selling everything to the cooperatives, they started producing estate-bottled wines, and working with specific grapes, single varietal wines. Most Portuguese wines are a blend of three or four grapes.
Something else interesting is that our best wine grapes are being borrowed by other wine countries — South Africa, Australia, California are all growing Toriga Nacional, which is one of the finest grapes and the principle grape in port wine. They’re using it to make their own port-style wines.
The whole way of thinking about vintages has changed.
In the last 20 years, Portuguese wine has really come of age. Never has Portugal produced better wine than it’s producing today. It doesn’t produce more wine — it actually produces less — but the quality of wine is much, much better.
Q. How would you describe the character of Portuguese wine in general?
A. In Portugal, we have basically three climatic regions that produce wines. We have mountain wines from the Douro and Dão regions. The region is similar to the Loire Valley or the Bordeaux regions in France or northern California. You have long, warm summers, cool but not cold winters. You get a nice, long growing season, so you get grapes with the right amount of sugar, very consistent. This is the region where port is made.
An example is Charamba Douro 2005, a red. It uses the same grapes as port, Touriga Nacional, but it is made as a table wine, instead of being fortified with brandy to make port. It’s about $8 or $9 in New Hampshire. It’s a nice drinkable red wine, especially for those who normally don’t drink red wine.
These grapes are very complex. They’re not big like Cabernet-type wines; they’re much more subtle, even sophisticated. They aren’t overly tannic. They have a nice follow-through on the mouth. And they’re very versatile because of that. They go with any food that a red wine would go with.
Most grapes are grown near the coast. It has greater humidity, greater heat in the summer, milder winters. Often these wines don’t age as well and are meant to be consumed within the first few years. Bairrada and the wines grown around Lisbon are examples of that.
Then we have our Mediterranean climate, almost like southern Australia. Hot summers, very mild but wet winters. The heat creates very big, bold-tasting, dark red wines and very flavorful white wines. This is the Alentejo region.
The Vinho Verde region in the north is Portugal’s biggest wine-producing region. The whites are sweeter but not sweet, and lower in alcohol, around 10 percent. In terms of grapes, the Loureiro and the Alvarinho are the two primary grapes. Two examples of wine we can get here in New Hampshire are Arca Nova and Casal Garcia, both from the Vinho Verde region. They are both about $8 or $9 a bottle. Serve them cold. They are slightly sparkling.
Q. So they’re sort of like Rieslings?
A. Yes. It’s called Vinho Verde, because the grapes are green, but also because the wine is fresh. It's a very fertile, green area of Portugal. These wines hold up well to sushi. It’s a great summer wine. It’s very crisp and refreshing. It goes great with barbequed chicken.
Q. What are some of your favorite Portuguese wines?
A. The wines I grew up with, the Alentejo red wines, I really like a lot, from the southern central region of Portugal. I’m very fond of a white wine from outside of Lisbon called Bucelas. Excellent wine for like $10 a bottle.
Another wine from the Alentejo region in the south that’s available here is Pias. It’s like $12, a really excellent red wine.
I love the wines from the Azores. I like the ones from Pico Island. They’re really hard to get; sometimes you can get them in Boston.
I like the upper Douro region wines. It’s one of my favorite parts of Portugal. I think the wines there are really, really good and they remind me of that part of the country — the endless countryside, the tiny towns, the old man riding a donkey, the castles up on the hills.
We just sent out a press release, that if you’re having ham for Easter, try a sparkling red wine from Bairrada. It’s definitely not cold duck! Bairrada is made to go with suckling pig. Like ham, it’s kind of rich and needs a wine to stand up to it.
There’s also Quinta Do Côa, it’s a red wine from the northern Douro region, about $18 a bottle, which is expensive for Portuguese wine. It’s delicious; it could be a $50 bottle of wine.
Casa de Santar is another. It’s hard to find here, but in Massachusetts is readily available. It’s extraordinarily good Dão wine, probably $18 a bottle. It could easily sell for $45, $50 a bottle. It’s really good wine. The winemaker happens to be a blood relative to the king of Portugal — if they still had a monarchy. Where else can you get wine made by royalty for under $20?
Many good Portuguese wines are not sold in stores but are served in restaurants. The Granite Restaurant and Bar at the Centennial Inn in Concord serves good Portuguese wine.
Q. Your firm also supports the Portuguese tourism industry as well. How is that market doing?
A. It’s been a struggle; the market’s been down about 10 percent this year. December was tough.
What I think makes Portugal competitive is that it has lots and lots of locally owned, high-quality, recently opened hotels, four- and five-stars. You’re going to have an experience you can’t have in Rhode Island or Nantucket. There are hotels that are run by a local company or a family with a big dedication to high-quality, luxury, spas. They have everything you could want, but with a touch of what is local.
And it only takes about five hours to fly to Lisbon from Boston -- about four hours to the Azores. So it takes the same time it takes to get to L.A.
Q. How is your business faring in general?
A. I feel that we’re in a good position. We have three big Portuguese accounts, we might get some more. We have a pretty stable group of nonprofits that we represent. We’re trying to add some new New Hampshire tourism accounts.
We have an exceptionally well-balanced group of clients, tourism, nonprofit, foundations, health care, who all have the resources to move forward.
Q. I believe there’s an interesting story behind why your firm is called Louis Karno & Co. Communications. He was a friend of the family, correct?
A. Louis Karno was a Polish immigrant who came to Chicago in the late 19th century. My grandfather was an immigrant from the Ukraine who came to Chicago at the age 5 in 1905. He later got a job out of high school working as a bookkeeper for Louis Karno — they made leather belts for machinery and other leather products. He worked his way up in the company and bought it in the late 1920s with a partner from Mr. Karno, who had retired.
It was prefect timing going into the Great Depression. My grandfather saved the company by coming up with two products which were very innovative. One was a self-adhesive leather sole. You would trim it to match your shoe, glue it on and have a new pair of shoes. You didn’t have to go to a cobbler. You didn’t have to buy a new pair of shoes.
The other was the perforated insole called the air-cooled insole. He invented it in 1938 before Dr. Scholl’s. Those products helped the company survive.
When I started the firm, I didn’t want to name it after myself, and I didn’t want some sort of theoretical name, I wanted something human. The name Louis Karno came to mind. His was a company that was always adapting, always changing with the economy and changing with opportunities.
Cindy Kibbe can be reached at ckibbe@....